When Carlos Fuentes passed away last month, the news spread across the literary establishment with the speed usually associated with alarm. Though the emblematic Mexican writer was 83 years of age, he remained tremendously active, continuously engaging in public events and adding to his considerable oeuvre at a staggering pace. To be sure, his frame had become frail, but it still exuded a subtle air of distinction that evoked the elegant flair of the stereotypical South American intellectual. In short, Carlos Fuentes was still very much himself, even just a couple of weeks removed from his deathbed, as he spoke at the Buenos Aires Book Fair about his latest literary project at the beginning of May.
Born in Panama in 1928 to a Mexican diplomat, Fuentes had a nomadic childhood, which was particularly marked by his years in Washington D.C., where his schooling was imparted in English. Following a two-year period in Santiago de Chile, Fuentes arrived in Buenos Aires in 1943, in the midst of an unsettling military coup that effectively placed General Pedro Pablo Ramirez at the helm of a government that only fell short of officially declaring its allegiance to the fascist bloc fighting the war in Europe. Although just a teenager, Fuentes’ personality had already developed the strong principles that would later shape much of his fiction and that would lead him to compile an impressive collection of political essays: disgusted by a system that was quick to show its affinity towards arch-conservative nationalism, Fuentes simply refused to attend school, surely influenced by the sort of liberal education he had experienced in Washington.
Implausibly, his father agreed with Carlos and allowed him to spend a sabbatical year exploring the city of Buenos Aires, before he could ask for a new assignment. Which is not to say Fuentes Sr. was an indulgent father: despite his son’s declared passion for literature, he made it very clear that no man could make a living as a writer in Mexico, and persuaded him to complete a Law degree, instead. Carlos Fuentes returned to Mexico in 1944, finished his school, enrolled at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), went on to study at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, and worked as secretary to the Mexican representative to the UN International Rights Commission, before joining the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs in 1954. By 1957, Carlos Fuentes had already been appointed as head of the newly created Department of Cultural Relation, and he was well underway to fulfilling the successful diplomatic career his father had envisaged for him from the start.
Enter the other Carlos Fuentes, the literary experimentalist, the creator, the tireless intellectual. While his publishing debut came in 1954 with the collection of short stories, The Masked Days (Los días enmascarados, ed. Los presentes), which included the famous “Chac Mool,” a modern tale that revisits in the cult for the ancient Mayan deity, Fuentes would not truly establish himself as a serious writer until the publication of his first novel, Where the Air Is Clear (La región más transparente, Fondo de Cultura Económica) in 1958. The success that this fragmented portrayal of Mexico City would bring him ensured that he would be able to gear the rest of his life in the direction he had craved ever since he was a young teenager: in 1958, Carlos Fuentes quit the foreign office, and devoted himself solely to writing.
Perhaps as a consequence of his itinerant upbringing, and, certainly, also through the particular sense of remote belonging developed by children who grow in an environment where they are inevitably singled out as “different,” Fuentes concerned himself almost exclusively with the troubling reality of Mexico in the earliest stages of his literary career. He followed the success of Where the Air Is Clear with a short novel, or novella, which to this day is acclaimed as him most significant piece of work, Aura (Alacena, 1961). Combining symbolism with a surrealist technique, Fuentes tells the story of a ghost-writer who has come to help an old lady to finish the memoirs of her husband. The writer falls in love with the lady’s niece but his infatuation for her leads him into an ambiguous world of magic that Fuentes dexterously manipulates to create a dramatic effect on the reader.
While Aura cements Fuentes’ position among the most innovative narrators of his time, his next novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz (FCE, 1962), would mark the pinnacle of his artistic creation and would place him at the forefront of the literary phenomenon known as the Latin American “Boom.” The novel tells the story of an opportunistic revolutionary who takes advantage of the times and becomes a highly successful, though highly corrupt, businessman, but the remarkable aspect of The Death of Artemio Cruz lies not on the social and moral judgment it puts forward but rather on the bold narrative form Fuentes seeks to develop for his character.
Prostrated on his deathbed during the agonizing final hours of his life, Cruz recalls the pivotal moments of his past but also projects his own actions into the future. Thus, the twelve chapters into which the novel is divided are each split into a delirious present narrated in the first person, preceded by a fully coherent account of the past, told in third person, and followed by an evasive reconstruction of his own persona, told in the second person and in future tense, as if Cruz sought redemption for himself by projecting his life beyond his actual death. Often confusing and yet inexplicably fascinating, the complex architectural structure of The Death of Artemio Cruz is a sophisticated academic exercise brought to life by a writer who is acutely aware of the passions and the affinities that force readers to engage with a novel, regardless of the challenge of its format.
Throughout his literary career, Fuentes was closely attached to the short-story genre, perhaps precisely because it afforded him the possibility to experiment more freely. By the time he published his second collection, Cantar de ciegos (“The Song of the Blind,” 1964), he was already an international celebrity. Nevertheless, this book provides ample evidence that Fuentes still enjoyed experimenting with different styles, exploring various genres and, ultimately, refining his prose at every turn. Cantar de ciegos includes some of his most famous short stories, such as “The Two Elenas,” a tale of promiscuity and appearances in Mexico’s high society, “The Doll Queen,” a somber horror story, “The Old Morality,” a terribly sinister tale of religious vows and carnal passion, and “A Pure Soul,” an account of brotherly love gone horribly wrong between two siblings.
And yet, by far the most curious of the stories included in this collection is “A la víbora de la mar” (“Sea-Snake”), dedicated to Julio Cortázar, himself a tremendously influential Latin American writer, but also, crucially, a prolific translator. This provides the clue as to the bizarre language and unusual style developed by Fuentes in this story, taken from a page, quite literally, of Joseph Conrad, yet re-enacted in a modern cruise-ship traveling around the Caribbean. By far the longest of the stories of the collection, “Sea-Snakes” is almost definitely a private joke unabashedly published by Fuentes, who spoke English perfectly, where he uses the particular tone, structure and cadence of the English language to narrate an account of forgery, deceit and fraud, not in English, but in Spanish.
Listing the accomplishments of each of the novels, collections of short stories, compilations of essays, scripts for the cinema and plays for the theatre that Carlos Fuentes wrote through the rest of his life would be a Herculean task. Not only because he remained enormously productive at every stage of his career, but also because his experiments can’t ever be simplified to good and bad, successful or unsuccessful. He was awarded the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 1977 for his epic, 800-page interpretation of Hispanic culture, Terra Nostra, and his 1985 novel, Gringo Viejo, became a bestseller in the United States, propelled by the film adaptation, starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda. Two years later, he was awarded the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, the most important literary prize in the Spanish-speaking world, and in 1994 he was also honored with the Premio Príncipe de Asturias, the most coveted recognition in the world, bar the Nobel Prize. The Years with Laura Díaz (1999) stands out as an epic chronicle of Mexico’s history through the XX century, told through the fictionalized perspective of his own grandmother, and The Eagle’s Throne (2003) is a highly controversial depiction of Mexico’s political elite told in epistolary form, which was highly acclaimed in some circles and strongly repudiated in others.
The significance of a figure of the stature and the caliber of Carlos Fuentes simply cannot be reduced to one or two of his books. Deeply committed, intriguingly attractive, fully outspoken, tremendously sure of himself and totally aware of his talent, Fuentes built a persona that is perhaps best epitomized in an anecdote: asked to act as Mexican Ambassador to France in 1975, he took the position after almost 20 years away from the diplomatic service, as a tribute to his father. His return to the Foreign Office, however, would be short-lived, as he resigned out of scruples in 1977. The reason: he felt the new government of his country was protecting the perpetrators of the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968 against students from the UNAM. In other words, a man of principles who, rightly or wrongly, abided by them from the time he was 15 till the end of his life, and who managed to influence all of Spanish literature in the process. Perhaps for that very reason, Carlos Fuentes’ greatest work might have been his own life. Godspeed.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON JUNE 16, 2012.